Art News Roundup: Hopper on the Block

I don’t normally tell people what art they ought to buy or not buy, since the “what” of art collecting is really up to personal taste. That being said, it’s just been announced that the greatest painting by the American Modern-Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) left in private hands is coming up for sale at Christie’s. So if you happen to have $70 million sitting around, you should absolutely attempt to buy it.


“Chop Suey” (1929) is classic, iconic Hopper, full of strong colors, unusual angles, and an air of mystery. You sense that we are in a moment somewhere between inaction and action, where with a single word, everything might change…or not. In fact, you’ve probably seen this image so many times, illustrating the cover of books from the Jazz Age or in retrospectives of Hopper’s work, that you probably didn’t even realize that this piece is privately owned.

This is a deceptively simple painting, until you really start to look at it. There are obvious questions such as, what are the two women talking about, or what are the young couple behind them talking about? But there are also less obvious points of enquiry, which always make trying to interpret a Hopper painting a great deal of fun.

Why, for example, does it appear as if there two light sources in the window above the man’s head, crossing over each other? Why is the fire escape ladder hanging down in front of the window at our right? Why do the couple have the little green-shaded lamp on their table, but the two women have theirs on the windowsill?

The $70 million estimate for this picture strikes me as a bit conservative: I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly in this market and given the Chinese-American thematic material, to see a Chinese collector pay $100 million for this work. The Chinese are primarily interested in brand names, when it comes to consumption, and Hopper is definitely in the upper pantheon of American artists when it comes to Modern Art.

Hopper’s current auction record is $40.5 million, for an interesting but unpopulated urban landscape painting, “East Wind over Weehawken” (1934). It depicts the slightly grim, rocky neighborhood that one drives through on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey. While Hopper’s landscapes and seascapes are nothing to sneeze it, they are more numerous than his figural paintings, which makes me think that “Chop Suey” will do better than its estimate.

And on to some other art news we go…

Beautiful Bath Tiles

The English city of Bath has welcomed visitors to its thermal springs since ancient times, when the Romans started visiting to take the waters. What visitors may not realize however, is that the current Bath Abbey, built in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, stands atop a far larger, demolished Cathedral that was built by the Normans beginning in the 11th century. Now, workers at the Abbey have uncovered some of the original Plantagenet floor tiles from that earlier building, and they are glorious things indeed.


Blunders in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), one of the most important and highly influential Flemish artists of the 16th century, certainly deserves a stand-alone museum, and the good people of Brussels were about to give him one. It was to be in a Renaissance house located on the same street where Bruegel lived and worked after his marriage in the parish church nearby. Unfortunately, the Bruegel House museum, which was to open next fall, is now on indefinite hold. This is not due to a lack of funds, but rather due to an overabundance of what the Belgians are particularly good at: inventing convoluted bureaucracies with draconian and utterly stupid rules.

Under current guidelines, government agencies must request approval from the federal government before spending more than $65,000, and in this case the federal government turned down the request. Work on the project has been halted indefinitely, even though the agencies involved have more than enough in reserve to pay for the project. A spokesman for the Minister of Budget, Sophie Wilmès, told the press that funding the museum was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies.” One is put in mind of Jim Hacker’s “British sausage” speech.


Da Vinci Doodles

Thanks to the latest bit of gee-whiz technology, you can now get closer to looking over the shoulder of a great Old Master painter than ever before. The Victoria and Albert Museum is digitizing its collection of notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and has put the first two volumes online for you to virtually thumb through. The remaining two volumes will be released online in 2019 as part of the commemorations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Not too much in the way of high art in this first release, but plenty of engineering sketches and, naturally, the master’s famous right-to-left handwriting.



Thought-Pourri: Living Edition

It has been a very busy week at the Fortress of Solitude, even with the holiday thrown in on Monday that gave me a bit of time to get some much-needed matters squared away. Between work, research on upcoming travels, and keeping on top of art research and writing projects, among other things, it has not been a dull February. As the month of March nears, warmer temperatures return, and new life starts bursting forth here in the capital, there are always new things to see and think about, so here are a few for you to ponder from the world of art news.


Still Life

Should you happen to find yourself in Belgium or Italy in the coming months, you’ll want to check out “Spanish Still Life”, a simply-titled but object-rich exhibition of 80 works covering the development of still life painting in Spain between 1600 and the present. A joint effort by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), and the Musei Reali de Torino, the comprehensive show brings together paintings belonging to a number of private and public collections in Spain and around the world, and features works by big names such as Velázquez, Picasso, Goya, and Dalí, as well as masters of the genre who are lesser-known outside of specialist circles, but whose works have been prized by collectors for centuries, including Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) and my personal favorite, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Among the more unusual pieces in the show is this 1937 work by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983): the artist gives these everyday objects an almost metallic quality, as if they were reflected in an oil slick. “Spanish Still Life” opens at BOZAR tomorrow, and runs through May 27th, before heading to Turin for the summer.


Low Life

While as a general rule, anything that makes the oppressive government of the People’s Republic of China unhappy makes me very happy, an exception to this rule may be found when it comes to the preservation of cultural artifacts. Some of the famous terracotta warriors from the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) have been on loan since Christmas to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as part of an exhibition that runs through March 4th. It seems that a Millennial (natch) guest at a party held at the museum and some of his friends decided to sneak into the exhibition, which was closed during the festivities, and have a look at the objects on display. After his friends departed, this individual (allegedly) decided to throw his arm around one of the statues to take a selfie – WHICH I HAVE WARNED YOU ABOUT BEFORE – and then (allegedly) broke off the left thumb of one of the warriors, taking it home with him as a souvenir. As is to be expected, this imbecile apparently forgot that museums have security cameras. Good luck with your court case, brah.


Lush Life

If you’ve ever dreamed of staying at the legendary Hôtel Ritz in Paris, now’s your chance to own a part of its history. From April 17-21, Artcurial in Paris will be auctioning off nearly 3,500 objects from the hotel, which recently underwent a major renovation and restoration. Items include everything from beds, bathtubs, and bar stools, to plush carpets and bronze lamps, as well as highly unusual objects such as a Louis XV style dog bed for a particularly pampered pooch. Some of the objects come from suites in the hotel that were habitually used by celebrities, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel. No word on whether they will playing “Fascination” – the recurring theme music in “Love In The Afternoon”, the classic 1957 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Maurice Chevalier which was shot at and centers around The Ritz – on an endless loop during the sale.


The Forest and the Tree

As we approach the beginning of the season of Advent, in preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Christ, many of His followers will take the time to engage in communal activities to reflect upon and celebrate this most profound event in human history.  Yet perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to being able to worship as we please, we have become lazy in our understanding of how very much the Christian message is despised in some quarters.  At the same time however, if we get too caught up in the pettiness of the present age, we may lose sight of the fact that hope is the touchstone of Christianity itself.

In the city of Brussels, capital of what for the time being is known as Belgium, it has long been customary to erect a large Christmas tree in the middle of the city’s magnificent Grand Place.    This is a large, public square, bordered by the city hall and other stately buildings from various historical periods, where people gather to celebrate, protest, do business, commune with officials, and so on.  An annual Christmas market is held here, centered around the town Christmas tree, though of course the custom of having a municipal Christmas tree in the center of it is not unique to Brussels, for we can find the same practice in many large cities and small towns around the world.

Recently however, the burghers of Brussels have decided not to display a Christmas tree in the Grand Place.  Instead, this year’s installation is a “sculpture” – really a tower made up of television screens – which one can climb to the top during the day to enjoy the view, and which at night puts on a light and image display.  It sounds rather like the entrance to an amusement park to me, but there you are.

City officials deny that there is any political motivation behind this move.  However, some Belgian politicians and journalists have expressed their concern that this “Electronic Winter Tree”  was chosen to not cause offense to those who are members of other religions, such as the Muslims who make up 25% of the city’s population.  One could add, for that matter, that non-believers resident in Brussels were probably included in that equation, given that most of them are members of the European Parliament.

There are a number of obvious responses to this decision which any reasonable person could make.  However what this decision clearly betrays is really rather curious.  It is not so much a demonstration of a kind of trendy stupidity, which seems to hold sway over much of Europe these days.  Rather, it is a deeper ignorance Europeans have of their own history and culture – something they have long accused Americans of – as they rush seemingly with glee into their own personal demographic and cultural disaster zone.

If one were to stroll around the Grand Place today and look up at the buildings, being careful not to be blinded by the lights from the “Electronic Winter Tree” of course, one would immediately come to the conclusion that not only was one in a Christian country, but that in fact one was in a decidedly Roman Catholic country.  The tower of the town hall, for example, is crowned not by a flag, an orb, or a simple spire, but rather a statue of the Archangel St. Michael triumphing over the Devil, whom he is trampling with his feet.  The facade below him is a virtual forest crammed with hundreds of statues, including figures from local history and figures of saints from throughout Christendom, such as St. Sebastian, St. George, St. Florian, St. Christopher, St. Augustine, and many others.

This fact aside, what is perhaps the ultimate irony here has been lost as a footnote in the somewhat outlandish reporting I have read to date on this story.  For even though the Christmas tree is gone, the city’s Nativity Scene will still be put on display in the square.  Yes, you read that correctly: there is no city Christmas tree, but a life-size physical representation of the birth of Jesus, complete with the Christ Child, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi, is out on the Grand Place for all to see.  There are even live sheep being kept in the stable, which is built of timber and filled with straw, to help draw the visitor into contemplation of the miracle at Bethlehem, in much the same way as St. Francis of Assisi did when he set up the first known Christmas crèche in the town of Grecio in 1223.

This brings us back to where we started, which is a challenge to reflect on how we as Christians on this side of the Atlantic engage in the public square with those who do not share, or who are virulently opposed to, our religion.  For the Christmas tree is but a symbol, adopted and modified through custom, that can just as easily be replaced by something else; it is not essential to Christian belief or practice.  If we are so focused on this one, single object as an inherent aspect of the celebration of Christ’s birth, then we are missing the point.

Aren’t we all just a little bit guilty of forgetting that it is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, and not the first day of Winter?  If the Christmas tree, with its lights, decorations, presents, and so on, is nothing more than a tradition, from which we gain no spiritual insight or example, then it is meaningless.  By focusing on the tree, to paraphrase the old saying, we are in danger of missing the forest of witnesses, like those carved on the entrance of Brussels’ city hall, who preached, taught, suffered, and died so that the Christian message of salvation would spread to all the corners of the earth.

In that regard, perhaps what is going on in Brussels will remind us that we need to rediscover not only our Christian heritage, but our actual Christian faith.  We should not be afraid to proclaim it and defend it, but we need to make certain that it is the actual Birth of Christ that we are celebrating at Christmas, and not some sort of combination of retail therapy and local custom.  Otherwise, we will soon be left with nothing other than to wish each other a Happy Winter Solstice, and be done with it.

Nativity Scene on the Grand Place, Brussels